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Wednesday, 1 July 2020

So sad to hear of the death of Rudy Anaya

I was deeply saddened this morning to hear that that my dear friend, teacher and mentor Rudolfo Anaya, the Chicano novelist, has died aged 83. 

I met Rudy in 1986 when I was an exchange student at the University of New Mexico. I had a full year in which to take whatever courses I pleased, and decided to focus on western American Lit and creative writing.

Attending Rudy's senior year, and later his graduate, workshops opened my eyes to all kinds of possibilities, such was the breadth of skills and range of ambitions among the assembled class members. My good fortune was to work with a group of people writing novels based on their experience of war, of prison, of running away from home and joining a circus (yes, really!) - not to mention a very sexy trilogy set in ancient India at the time of Alexander the Great. The styles of writing were equally varied - and so racy, so adventurous. I was very much the oddity with my sonorous old world diction and long sentences. Rudy embraced and praised all of us. He never made us feel anything other than writers - and writers with a chance of making it.

He was a generous, kind man. I say that not just because he invited me, my wife and kids to his house and fed us, but because he recognised how hard it was for me to stay afloat with a family to support. (As well as attending a full load of classes, I was running a window-cleaning business and tutoring part-time.) On one occasion, when he came down with a severe cold he asked me to sit in for him - to lead the (three-hour) class discussion. He promised me a small honorarium, which, when it came, was a crisp $50 bill. I had it my pocket next day as I drove down town to clean windows at a couple of restaurants. I was day-dreaming about a visit with the family to Nuncio's pizza place when I shot over the RR tracks a tad fast and ripped a tyre to shreds. The bill for that came to - you guessed it: $50. Plus tax.

I could say more about Rudy, and I realise I haven't mentioned his work  Suffice to say that during all the years when I taught western lit to my classes back home I always had them read his classic Bless Me, Ultima, a book I have enjoyed more than once. My students did too, by and large. If you haven't tried it, do. I think it could open your eyes to the Hispanic experience, at least as it was for one generation in rural New Mexico seventy-five years ago.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Adventures in Buffalo Gap, TX: coffee at Lola's, and a nightmare on Elm Street


This is an extract from my book Between The Rockies and a Hard Place, an account of my drive up (and down) the 100th Meridian in 2000.

Buffalo Gap has a population of 499. It’s a charming little town set either side of a twisting lane, its houses huddled under a dense canopy of shade trees. I had ample time to get a feel for the place as I crawled along, stomach rumbling, hoping to find a breakfast of some sort. 

   Lola’s might best be described as a shack, certainly as seen from the road: a tiny place with one square window and a little door, wedged between a rickety-looking tin-roofed building and a squat timber house with a hitching-rail outside the front door. A single pick-up truck was parked outside, its front bumper kissing a bleached tree-stump that marked the edge of a narrow, dusty sidewalk. I could’ve sworn I saw a man walk in through the door. There was no indication that it was a cafĂ©: it just looked as though it ought to be.

Open or not? There was only one way to find out

   Remembering my injunction to myself to boldly go where a travel writer must, I pulled up and investigated. The sign in the window said CLOSED, and I was just about to return to the car when I saw that the door was slightly ajar. I shoved it open and looked inside. One old-timer in faded dungarees and one mailman in a short-sleeved shirt were sitting at a little wooden table under a low ceiling drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups. 
   ‘Is it open, or not?’ I asked.
   The mailman looked up from his paper. He was only in his late thirties, but he had the relaxed look of a guy who’d got where he wanted to be in life and was in no hurry to get any further. I know that look. As a rat-catcher - this was when I was young and impulsive -  didn’t I have a job that half the population of North Lincolnshire would’ve died for? 
   ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘Come on in.’
   ‘What did she do, forget to change the sign?’
   ‘No, she’s closed Mondays. Leaves us the key so we can fix ourselves a drink.’ 
   I must have looked a little taken aback. The old-timer shifted in his seat. ‘I wouldn’t have anywhere to go otherwise,’ he explained. ‘Here, grab yourself some coffee,’ he pointed to a machine by the deserted counter, ‘and stick a coupla quarters in the jar there.’  

   If there was an award for just missing characters, I’d already be well in the running at this point on my travels. First the octogenarian helicopter pilot looking for company, now the woman whose House Rules and Guidelines for Survival were written on the wall where no one could miss them.
·         We do not specialise in service – wait on yourself.
·         You eat what we tell you to eat – unless you’re a regular.
·         This is not a Country Club, and you do not pay Country Club dues – so don’t boss us around with that Country Club attitude.
·         Do not even think about leaning back in our chairs.

   ‘Yes,’ the mailman agreed as I set the cups down on the table, ‘she’s quite a gal. Pity she’s out of town today. You’d like her.’ Then he asked me where I was heading.
   ‘Well, I’m heading north. I haven’t any particular route in mind, except I want to avoid Abilene.’
   ‘That’s a smart move. Abilene ain’t a nice place at all. Here,’ he took a fresh paper napkin and borrowed my pen, ‘lemme draw ya a little map. I drive all those county roads. I can show a real neat detour.’

   Not only did he know all the minor roads of the district, but by golly he was going to cram them all in on my paper napkin if he could. He’d already covered half of it with a confused network of farm-tracks, railways, crosses and arrows and even one set of road works, when he got distracted by the M word. It was my own stupid fault for mentioning my interest in history.

   When I made my first trip across the Plains, back in 1991, I drove 5,017 miles, and I made very slow progress. I was young, I was eager, I had a PhD to write up; I had a half-time post as a university lecturer back in the U.K., and high hopes of an academic career. The more I wrote down in my notebook, the better I felt about spending five weeks away from my kids.

  On that trip I pulled over at every Historical Marker on the roadside, and read just about all of them, frequently making notes. You don’t have to spend long on the road in western Kansas to realise that Historical Markers probably rank as number three in their list of products – some way behind grass, but only a little way behind abandoned gas stations. I never missed one. The odd few that I couldn’t be bothered to read, I photographed for future reference. 

   I also called in at just about every museum, National, State Historical or private, from Holbrook, Arizona, to Baldwin, Kansas, on up to Laramie, Wyoming, and back through Colorado to Gallup, New Mexico, out on Route 66. I took notes on ploughs, ox-yokes, Indian pots, arrow-heads, six-guns, Winchester rifles, traps, coonskin caps, buffalo-robes and all the appurtenances, domestic, commercial and military, Native and imported, that furnished the needs of Westerners, red, white, black and yellow. I saw re-constructed log cabins, sod houses, tipis, authentic frontier jails, school-houses, pot-belly stoves, barns, garages, dentists’ surgeries, livery stables, cavalry forts, lock-ups, churches, Conestoga wagons, Model T Fords, railroad engines, stage-coaches, scalps, petroglyphs, the very wagon-tracks left in the prairie earth by the emigrants. By the time I’d put a new set of tyres on the car in Flagstaff, Arizona, I had taken to calling at museums and demanding to see the curator so that I could ask what they had that I wouldn’t have seen so far. 

   So when the mailman broke off from his map-making and said, ‘You know, so long as you’re in town you really ought to call in at the museum. It’s just around the corner,’ I had to restrain myself from lecturing him on the devalued currency of ubiquitous Western relics. Being polite, being British, I meekly agreed that it would be un-neighbourly to miss it. I drank up my coffee, decided I could cope with the hollow sensation in my stomach for another half an hour or so, and headed for Elm Street.

   It’s no great curiosity to find a graveyard out West whose population outnumbers the town it serves. I’ve got an absolute beaut stored up for when we get to North Dakota, for example, a little place called Arena that’s so lonely – well, you’ll see how lonely it is in due course. And because past so frequently overshadows present in this land of speculative ventures, because people so frequently abandon their homes and move on with nothing more than what they can pile in the back of the car, it’s not unusual to find a museum whose collection spills over into outbuildings, basements and adjacent lots and dwarfs the town that hosts them. 

   People started abandoning their treasured possessions on the Great Plains way back in the overland trail days, lightening the load as the mountains loomed and the draught animals weakened on the thin grazing. Leaving aside the bones of exhausted oxen, the pitiful little gravesites of babies, or the mothers who died bearing them, the most expendable luxuries seemed to be the tokens of a more refined life: the bureaux, the pianos, the books.  Later generations, destroyed by drought, or locusts, or plummeting prices for farm products, were equally unmoved by the value their grandparents had placed on furniture from the Old Country. So there’s an awful lot of junk to be sifted through, and most of it is in backrooms in small-town museums, cared for by perhaps the one person in a town who carries a torch for its cultural history. But I have to say that until I arrived here I’d never seen a museum that so nearly overshadowed a town in its size, its comprehensive representation of what that town might have looked like in its prime.

   The Buffalo Gap Historic Village contains, not necessarily in this order, a courthouse,  a jail, an 1875 log cabin, a doctor’s office, a post office, a barber shop, a railroad depot, an art gallery, a carpenter’s shop, a blacksmith’s shop, a wagon barn, a print shop, a chapel, another post office more modern than the first, a Texaco service station,  a schoolhouse, a Marshall’s house, a trading-post, and a general store converted into an exhibit hall for local artists. And that excludes the outside exhibits, which are several. Clearly, I should have persevered in my search for a substantial breakfast.

   They start you off with an appetiser, a twenty-minute video presentation on the history of Texas in general and Buffalo Gap in particular. And for that alone I am grateful: I learned a few things about Texas which had escaped my attention. For example, the state department responsible for such matters dumps 40,000 lbs – that’s around twenty tons – of wildflower seed along its verges every year. Just as I managed to digest that one, I was hit with a corollary statistic. Those seeds have to be scattered along 1,250,000 thousand miles of road; and, there being at least two verges per highway, they probably scatter them pretty thin. 

   The first settlers, it seems, came to these parts in 1875, lured by the fact that the buffalo migrated through the gap in the hills that gave the place its name. For a brief period the county seat was here, and the population reached 1,800.  But when the Texas Pacific Railroad pushed its shiny new tracks through Abilene rather than Buffalo Gap, the county seat went with them and the game was up. It happened all the time on the frontier, where rival speculators who had invested money in neighbouring settlements would lobby the railroad with all kinds of incentives. Sometimes a town that was by-passed would up and move itself to the trackside. Others languished; many died. Go to the State Historical Society headquarters in Topeka, Kansas, for example, and you may ask to see the Dead Towns Index, a catalogue of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of  townships that were surveyed, named, in many cases constructed, and finally abandoned. It’s how fortunes were made and lost.

   After the historical scene-setting, the tour. The wonderful thing about a museum like Buffalo Gap is that, having the space to grow, they keep cramming things in: beautifully preserved items like the dentist’s chair and instruments of torture, but also wonderfully decrepit items, like the old piece of farm machinery so heavy that it had collapsed the front of the wagon it stood on. There it was, at rest, under a cedar tree that probably pre-dated the entire town, both wheels splayed inwards at 45 degrees and half their spokes missing, a monument to the ageing process. And there, around the corner, nailed to the grey, bare, wooden boards of an old farm building, was an enamelled sign advertising a long-vanished brand of chicken-feed: 




   If you’ve never done this kind of museum in the West, Buffalo Gap is as good a place to do it as any. But don’t make my mistake: don’t go there on a Monday. Hit town when Lola is open for business – and write and tell me what she’s like. I’m kind of curious.

Monday, 15 June 2020

Sherlock the Musical: what might have been.


I wanted to write this blog last September. Upon reflection, it’s been for the best that I waited until now. After nine months, my rage about what happened to Das Sherlock Musical (https://uraniatheater.de/project/das-sherlock-musical/) has burned itself out, and has given way to sadness.

A little over eighteen months ago, in November 2018, I sat in the Urania Theatre in Koln and waited, in a fever of tension, for the reaction of a packed opening night house.

Our production team of four had worked long and hard, against a ridiculously tight deadline, to create a more or less workable show, from scratch, in the few short months since we first convened in the spring of that year. We had a good cast, a reasonable story, some great songs, and – against all odds - a decent set of special effects constrained by, but also tailored to the needs of, a low-budget 150-seat theatre in the suburbs.

What we lacked, as opening night approached, was a really rousing finale. In that regard, both the songs and the story needed work. And we knew it. Hence the first-night nerves.

However, in the world of theatre the improbable does sometimes happen. And the miracle that chilly evening was that the audience seemed to love the show. They laughed at the jokes, clapped each scene enthusiastically, stamped their feet and tried to sing along to the songs. When the curtain came down (that’s a metaphor: the Urania doesn’t run to such adornments) they walked out smiling.
After the bows, the flowers, the congratulatory drinks in the foyer, we looked at each other and grinned in disbelief. We’d done it. All we needed now was to write a better ending, perhaps add a scene here, a song there, and we would be ready to hit the road with a decent show.

It wasn’t long before the cracks started to appear. First, there were complaints about the songs. They were too cheerful, too cheap. And the story: not dark enough, lacking in conflict. And, of course, the cast were in the firing line. One by one, they would be condemned as inadequate.

There followed a long period of uncertainty. During that time the technical director and the music director were replaced, in an atmosphere of vitriolic animosity. The new team worked on further rewrites. Whatever the virtues of the changes that we made, it became clear that, week by week and month by month, we were losing our sense of cohesion and, crucially, of goodwill.

I will not go too far into that unpleasantness, nor the explosion of anger that precipitated my own withdrawal in September 2019, immediately after we launched the re-shaped show. In part, I am governed by caution and the possibility of litigation. More than that, I never think about Sherlock now without being overcome by weariness. In any case, I have moved on, preoccupied with new projects far removed from the quirky world of stage musicals.

The other day, however, I read a report about the return of Sherlock to our TV screens. Series 5. I paused for a moment and felt a wave of sadness wash over me.

But for the obsession of one person, who sought total control; who responded too readily to outside criticisms; who too easily took offence and retreated behind a defensive trench; who employed a simple tactic, over and over, in order not to pay people who had sweated blood for the show (‘you’re rubbish and I am firing you’), but for all that, we might still be a going concern. And, with the TV Sherlock returning to the headlines, we would once more have been topical. Who knows, we might even have made a few pfennigs after close to two years of working for zilch. But that will not be. Our original creation is no more than a shrivelled corpse rotting in someone else’s memory.
As I say, it’s all very sad. And, more than that, entirely unnecessary.

Monday, 8 June 2020

The delightful musings of Margaret Whitaker - retired psychiatric nurse, Liverpudlian, writer, friend and all-round exemplar of simple humanity.



Out now - the memories of Margaret Whitaker, 1929-45, (https://amzn.to/2XLHtg9)

When I was young and dreaming of being a professional writer, I truly imagined that that's what they did: write. All day. Every day. And rake in the cash. And walk around in cream coloured linen suits pursued by interviewers and camera crews.

I had no idea just how much time, even when I was able to support myself by my craft, I would spend on ancillary projects, 

This last month or two, for example, I have had to put aside the novel I was working on and attend to the following:

Preparing a pitch for a book I wrote five years ago for a movie production company who have suddenly noticed it;

Reading a few short stories for a friend;

Reviewing another friend's 90,000-word manuscript and discussing same in a Zoom conference;

Reading and assessing a manuscript for The Literary Consultancy. (I am now in my twentieth year as a non-fiction appraiser for this, the first and probably best such consultancy in the U.K.);

Writing a long poem for my brother's 80th birthday. Okay, nobody held a gun to my head, but what else could I do?

All perfectly enjoyable tasks, but none as delightful as the project illustrated above.

I first met Margaret Whitaker in 1990 or '91, when she showed up at a writing class I ran in South Cave, East Yorkshire. I think she had just retired and was wanting to record her early life. Her tales ranged from the reflective to the wacky to the ribald to the poignant. The day she read 'Thanks for the Mammary; a History of My Breasts Aged 14 to Present Day' a rare male member of the class took off, muttering something about not having come all that way to listen to pornography. (NB: yes, it's in the book.)

Mags generally had the place in uproar with her stories, all based on her rich life experience and viewed through her deeply human eyes. We fell about listening to her 'Confessions of a Lady Organist' and 'The Four Letter Word in the Garage' and listened, spellbound, as she described her early conviction that holding hands in the back seat of the cinema might get her pregnant. (It was about the mating habits of frogs, as revealed to her in a Biology class).

I always wanted to see her work in print, but while Mags cranked out an almost endless stream of vignettes over the next twenty-plus years, she never really had the drive to send things much further than the Yorkshire Post. Of course, we published her in our annual South Cave writing class magazine, and we did get her reading on Radio Humberside, which went down a storm.

Now she is in her nineties. After losing touch for some years I re-established contact a year or two ago and promised that, once I had got on top of things, I would look at her collected writings.

I called by last January and collected five fat Lever Arch files. Remember them? They contained approximately 640 pages of typescript.

I set about putting together those pieces that relate to her childhood and adolescence, 1929 to 1945.

We paid a typist to put it all onto disk, commissioned a cover, paid a formatter, were offered the services of a wonderful copy editor, Joan Deitch (who'd fallen for Mags' stories and worked for nothing) and, after a few glitches, got the book prepared. 

I think this collection has everything: humour, tragedy, love and loss. It depicts life in a certain part of Liverpool  during the Depression and the War. It reveals Mags' love of music, reading, fun, and boys - especially the ones from Quarry Bank School, who really knew how to kiss. And it shows us a world from a child's point of view, a world in which adults are very much the opposition, if not at times the enemy.

It's available now, from amazon (https://amzn.to/2XLHtg9), and all I can say is, do read it. I doubt you'll be disappointed.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Fifty years ago today: Chelsea 2 Leeds 1 in the F. A. Cup Final replay



At twelve noon on this day in 1970 I left my desk at Heathrow Airport, got a bus to Hounslow West,  underground to Hendon, and hitch-hiked north to watch the F A Cup Final replay between my team, Chelsea, and our most hated rivals, Leeds.

I was in outer Manchester for six-thirty, and at Old Trafford half an hour before kick-off. I had my ticket in my pocket. At ten shillings (50p) it was a sight cheaper than the one I got from a tout for the original final. That set me back £7, about 30% of my week's wage. 

I had attended every game of our glorious run to the Final – all except the fourth-round replay at Burnley, when the late Peter Houseman scored a hat-trick in a 3-1 triumph.

Round 3 was a routine 3-0 win v Birmingham

Cover photo shows the celebrations during a 5-1 win in the League, at Crystal Palace, just after Christmas

Round 4. My only memory of the first Burnley game was that we were 2-0 up with five minutes to go. My mate Dave, a Norwich supporter, said, 'Makes a change to see your lot win. They never do when I come.' Five minutes later we had conceded twice and had to replay at Turf Moor.


Nice picture of Alan Hudson beating Arsenal goalie Bob Wilson in a recent 3-0 win at Highbury

Round 5. It was in the game at Crystal Palace that Chelsea really hit their stride. A few weeks earlier I’d watched them win 5-1 at Selhurst Park (see Birmingham prog, above). This day we settled for 4-1.




Round 6, the quarter-final. Four more goals at QPR… Chelsea were really flying now, although still trailing Leeds and eventual Champions Everton in the League. QPR fielded two former Chelsea stars, the lightning fast Barry Bridges, and that wily fox (future Barcelona and England manager) Terry Venables. We did them, 4-2. 

Very jazzy covers at Loftus Road in those days - note the rosette for 'best programme'

Semi-final. Then Watford at White Hart Lane. This game was actually closer than the 5-1 scoreline suggests. On a sand-heap of a pitch (typical Tottenham) it was 1-1 well into the second half. Then we went nuts and scored four.

Never worked out why we kicked off at 2.45, but who cares? We romped home.

Then on to the Final at Wembley, and yes, I can  admit it now, Chelsea were a tad lucky to get a 2-2 draw with a late, late equaliser from the late great Ian Hutchinson. But it was Leeds, so screw 'em. It wasn't just the fans: the players hated each other too. It's on record.

Two bob for a programme. Youch!

And finally, Old Trafford. There was that sickening feeling when Leeds went in front, but that made the elation - when (the late) Peter Osgood nodded in Charlie Cooke's pass right below us at the Stretford End - all the greater. In extra time the belief started to grow. From a typically huge throw from Hutchinson, nodded on by John Dempsey, David Webb nodded the ball into the net. Everyone went mental. To this day I recall it as an out of body experience. But I was young, and VERY excited.  The Cup meant more than the League in those days. Truly. It was more or less the only live game on TV every year and attracted a huge audience. 29 million tuned in for this one - more than half the UK population at the time. 






I had been up at 5 that morning to start my shift at the Airport, and I'd hitch-hiked 200 miles north with little thought about how to get home. I followed a singing chanting crowd of CFC supporters to the station, piled on a train, paid my £4 and emerged at Euston about three in the morning. Somehow I found a couple of guys who wanted to head southwest and we shared a cab to Kingston. I walked over the bridge to Hampton Wick, alone, 4 in the morning, singing Ee Aye Addio We Won The Cup at the top of my voice. Grabbed some sleep and went back to work..